Precision Agriculture

Adding Track and Trace to the Agricultural Supply Chain
By Matt Ball | Published March 6, 2013

**This is a two-part feature. For more information on location-based precision agriculture technologies see the companion piece in Sensors and Systems Precision Agriculture: Sensors Drive Agricultural Efficiency



 

Farmers are conservative adopters of technology; however, where there is measured benefit, they are quick to adapt. Precision agriculture technologies have been around for more than 20 years, but adoption by farmers has been variable due to a number of economic and technical factors. Within the last five years, the location technologies of precision agriculture, in particular GPS- based tractor equipment and location-based applications on mobile devices, have rapidly become standard modern farming practice.

 

The costs of investing in these technologies have dropped dramatically over the years, and can pay off quickly by managing inputs and resources effectively, including adjusting the amount of seed, water, nutrients and insecticide that is applied. Additionally, farmers stand to reduce their time in the field as well as the fuel that they burn, adding to the savings.

 

Moving up the value chain beyond growers, precision agriculture brings even more benefits as the technologies extend into the food supply chain. Agricultural supply chains comprise input (seeds, fertilizer, energy, water, insecticide), production, post-harvest storage, processing, marketing and distribution. Farm suppliers from seed companies to feed supply to equipment manufacturers on the input side, as well as post-harvest companies from storage to processors to retailers, see great value in the detailed data that farmers can supply. The farmers stand to benefit because by documenting farming practices, their crops are sought by those marketing premium products, offering a quality assurance that is essential for some brands.


Now that precision guidance and data logging systems are standard on all new machinery, it’s time for the farm data to be harnessed by the many “off-board” systems in the supply chain. Processors look to this data to ensure commodity consistency as well as transparency for a concerned public. Regulators see utility in this data to improve oversight. Together these pressures and incentives are creating a tipping point for precision agriculture technologies.


Market Volatility: The Weather Factor

Because farming is wholly dependent on the weather, and is susceptible to disease and pests, it is an industry fraught with uncertainty. Over the past decade, prices for many agricultural commodities have increased greatly, making farming a more attractive business opportunity. However, along with increased prices have also come more price volatility, with an all-time high price for corn and soybeans due to drought conditions this summer in both the United States and Eastern Europe. This volatility and the constant of demand for food worldwide have meant an increasing emphasis on regulation and mitigation strategies to improve reliability of supply, and to address food safety.


The recent drought that covered 60 percent of the United States puts the value of the agricultural supply chain into perspective as it has dramatically impacted global supply and has cost an estimated $50 billion in damages. To illustrate one aspect of the economic impact of the drought, low flow in the nation’s waterways has made it more difficult to transport the 60 percent of farm exports that move to down- stream ports for shipment overseas. Shipping by water is more than $10 cheaper per ton than shipping by road or rail, and with nearly 80 million tons of grain moving by barge annually, waterway transport represents a cost savings of $800 million. The Army Corps of Engineers has kept the channels open, but traffic was roughly 40 percent of normal due to narrower channels and restricted traffic times.


Farmers cushion themselves from droughts and other impacts through crop insurance, and there were record claims in 2012. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or a Farm Management Information System (FMIS), farmers can now pull together crop insurance claims more quickly, and can file this data digitally thanks to new USDA guidelines as of 2010. However, when the new USDA guidelines for yield monitor reporting came out, none of the equipment or system manufacturers produced data in a way that met the imposed standard.

 

Data Standards

With government mandating a specific dataset, and proprietary data formats from vendors causing a lack of consistency and interoperability between systems, there needed to be a fix. AgGateway, a non-profit organization that advocates for farmers and suppliers, stepped forward to address the efficient data access and exchange of information that both the farmer and the government need. The data requirement needs to factor in current technology and practice, with a wide range of adoption from farmers who have simply purchased guidance and steering technology for improved planting, to those who have applied the full range of precision agriculture controls and monitoring throughout the crop lifecycle. Through their Standardized Precision Ag Data Exchange (SPADE) Project, AgGateway aims to achieve workable standards, and further their overall goal of reducing supply chain costs while also providing traceability. 


“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is going through a transformation that will update their infrastructure for information exchange,” said Jeff Keiser, manager of technology integration for John Deere Insurance Company and chairman of the Precision Ag Council within AgGateway. “AgGateway provides the means to bring industry and regulators together to discuss details and data that need to flow, both supporting industry and closing historical knowledge gaps.”

 

Standard Practice: Paperwork

Throughout the agricultural industry, everyone is of the opinion that regulation will not decrease. Regulations come mainly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


Contracts between farmers and processors generally stipulate that the farmer follow the USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). These practices outline the ways that produce growers can prevent on-farm contamination of fruits and vegetables. Every year the farmer prepares a GAP plan that is inclusive of sanitary handling practices, and things you may not do, such as applying manure to a field that is going into the food stream because of possible pathogens. The GAP practices include more than 270 questions that have to be answered every year. Questions include practices, such as, “Can you or do you employ someone that can identify a weed or a specific pest?” Each GAP decision presents a cause and effect, where the farmer scouts the field to identify a pressure from a weed or a pest and then decides whether to treat for that pest, weed or disease. Treatment requires following the rate at which pesticide or herbicide can be applied, as approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Precision practices help to record the approach, protecting the farmer, and providing traceable practices that can be tracked back in the event of environmental damage or food-borne illness.

 

Crop Traceability

Collecting information to trace a crop back to the field, with details on when and with what products the crop was treated, is within reach for all farm products, pending solutions to the interoperability challenges. The whole supply chain has an interest in this level of detail, from the seed and genetics companies that would like to correctly assess seed performance, all the way to the processors that need to ensure product quality and protect human health.


Different crops have different levels of traceability that are driven both by the market and by regulations. The traceability may depend on different characteristics of value, such as with coffee that is shade-grown or fair trade or depending on how it was processed, such as the coffee roast. Fresh produce has a great deal of traceability, as there is little processing, great perishability, the quality is key to market- ability, and local-grown is increasing in importance. Commodity crops such as corn or soybeans are far less managed, as there is a great deal of processing with many different food stuffs derived from the raw materials.


The level of precision of the tracking depends on the crop and the degree of processing. Some traceability systems track food from the retailer back to the farm, while others just go back to a key point in the production process. Some systems are very precise, tracking food to the minute of pro- duction or the exact area of a field.


“We track everything back to a field,” said Vince Restucci, Director of Procurement and Business Technology at R.D. Offutt, the largest potato grower in the United States, and one of the largest processors. “We know everything that has gone on in that field. When we harvest it, and put it in storage, we have the complete history of weather, irrigation practices, evapotranspiration (weather and water), and we run samples for quality attributes of the crop... If you follow a potato back from a fast food restaurant chain french fry to the plant where it was processed, that plant will know with a time and date stamp all the things that happened,” said Restucci. “They know everything for a lot (allotment) of potato seed, to the field it was grown, to the farmer, to where it was stored, and where it traveled. It’s a pretty transparent system.”

 

Others are less precise, tracking product to farms in a large geographical area, such as the area served by a single grain elevator. Some traceability systems collect and track information on a broad range of attributes, while others track only a few. The 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed on January 4, 2011, includes many changes that have impacts on practices related to agriculture traceability. This latest act is a major reform, with new mandates and new authority for the FDA. At this point, the mandates have started with pilot projects to establish methods and technol- ogies for tracking and tracing of foods. The FDA, working with industry, will establish new rules and record keeping requirements that will help to standardize food tracking.

 

Risks and Monitoring

With the application of technology, it has become much easier to affect the age-old practice of modifying crops to location and conditions. However, today’s genetically modified (GM) foods are under increasing scrutiny due to safety, ecological and economic concerns. Scientists are also more aware of the potential impacts of pesticides on biodiversity and ecological sustainability. These new pressures on the location and impact of GM foods, and the ecological impacts of pesticides, require a new degree of monitoring.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases. E. coli, salmonella, pathogenic bacteria and allergens have all been responsible for illness, and have been the target of food recalls. With each new contamination and mass poisoning, it can take weeks to track the source back to supplier, with compounding impacts to human life. Given these cases, consumers pay far more attention to the origin of their food, and are more concerned about the process. Location technologies involved in traceability have the ability to greatly reduce concern, and quickly respond to any health issues.


Traceability systems improve supply-side management while also increasing safety and quality control. The benefits associated with these objectives include lower-cost distribution systems, reduced recall expenses, and expanded sales of high-value products. In every case, the benefits of traceability translate into larger net revenues.


“The biggest thing with constant monitoring and utilizing precision is reducing the opportunity cost and making farming less of a gamble, “ says Chris Gallo, Precision Agri- culture Specialist with Simplot. “It is catching problems before they result in losing big money. So, if you can be more consistent, that is worth a lot of money because you can be more sure of your yields and profits.”

 

Gaming the Farm

The younger generations that may have grown up playing Sim City or other role playing games where they designed cities and systems to maximize performance, are right at home with the new technology. These tools put data on performance directly into their hands, and with prescriptive choices the real- world results are better yields and bigger bank accounts.


Young farmers are transforming farming with their tech- savvy skills and use of mobile devices and sensors. The stream of information with tractor-based sensors adds up to Big Data that needs these skills in order to manage and analyze all the inputs. The introduction of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will also significantly increase this insight, by providing low- cost tools to view fields from above. The Federal Aviation Administration is currently undergoing tests and reviews, with widespread commercial application expected by 2015.

 

As precision agriculture tools become cheaper and more ubiquitous, growers and processors will adopt more precision because they’re driven by both efficiency and regulation. As a result of these carrots and sticks, we can expect agricultural applications of location technology to continue to be a shining example of the practical application of this technology.

 


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